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Demonstrating sustainable farming practices – burden or opportunity?

by | Oct 1, 2015 | News

When it’s time to complete your Farm Environment Plan do you roll your eyes and think “I could think of more productive ways to spend this day”. Perhaps you pine for the “good old days” when it was no one’s business but your own how you chose to farm your property?… or…do you think… “I don’t mind showing people that our farm is producing food (or fibre) in a responsible way, improving it where we can, and contributing to our local community and economy”? 

As with all businesses, farming is changing with the times. There is more to do, more people interested in how we do things and more knowledge required to be great at it. In spring time when each day seems far too short and you wonder if you will ever catch up, it is a not always easy to think positively about the new environmental compliance requirements and nutrient constraints that are impacting your farm business.

It might not be as bad as you think. If you don’t already have a basic understanding of how the new rules may impact your business then it might be a good idea to plan to address it once you have your immediate spring work load pressures under control. Once you understand how the rules may impact you and have a plan for the future it always feels better.

As a completely biased Kiwi I think that New Zealand farmers are some of the most adaptive in the world. Once we understand the cause or principles, we can often figure out a unique way to solve a problem or meet a need. Regional councils here are trying to tackle water quality trends differently to our friends abroad. Ours are aiming towards “effects based” policies, rather than prescribing or restricting inputs. Although it might feel like it is all a bit crazy right now, it might be a much better approach if we can cope with the mess in the middle as they try to find the best way forward.

In Canterbury the Regional Council has focussed on the use of Overseer nutrient budgets and Farm Environment Plans in their Land and Water Regional Plan. Most farmers now require nutrient budgets. Overseer is a tool that estimates the impact of farm inputs, management or infrastructure on nutrient losses. It helps work through a complex and dynamic biological system to estimate nutrient flows on a farm. Overseer is useful when you use it to compare a current farm management situation (or an historic baseline) with a future scenario on the same property. It can help predict where your changes may have most impact from a nutrient loss perspective. Overseer is updated twice a year so the result in kilograms of losses can vary with versions. This can cause a lot of confusion. Don’t go throwing the baby out with the bathwater though, Overseer is a good model and when applied in the context for which is was designed, driven by qualified people, it is a useful decision support tool to help improve nutrient use and manage losses.

Farm Environment Plans (FEPs) are also being introduced. The templates used by different councils may vary but the key objectives in each are likely to be similar. The good thing about the FEPs is that they revolve around objectives that every good farmer shares. For example to improve irrigation and nutrient use efficiency whilst minimising losses. Many farmers are already implementing good practices in relation to these objectives, so might not have many changes to make. So what’s different? You will have to have to write your plan down or put it into an on-line system, someone will audit your actions and you do have to provide evidence to demonstrate what you have been up to.

Perhaps you should consider this document to be a “do”, rather than a “plan” because it is your actions that will be used as evidence in the audit. The goal is for farmers to self-manage to achieve improvement against each objective with audits ensuring you are making the required progress. Try not to put actions into your plan that require you to spend money on technology for compliance only. You should be focussing on changes that give you benefits resulting in resource use efficiency first rather than spending money just to demonstrate to a regulator that you are doing as you say. Using soil moisture metering technology to improve irrigation scheduling decisions is a great example of technology that can improve both efficiency of resource use and help you to demonstrate this to a regulator.

Industry groups have worked together to come up with a list of industry agreed “good management practices” that are frequently referred to when it is time to construct Farm Environment Plans. It is important that as farmers you keep your focus on why those practices are considered good. You might be able to think of a better, cheaper, or less risky means of achieving the same end – and given that the aim is to consider the effect, not to shoehorn you into particular practices it is important that we continue to keep focussed on “why”. Back yourself to think of innovative cost effective ways of achieving the same ends.

When it comes to Farm Environment Planning, keep it simple, take your time in setting up a good process to capture your evidence along with your plan and remember this is a marathon, not a sprint.

When you are making strategic decisions about your farm system, succession or the sale, purchase or lease of property you now need to consider nutrient based regulations as well. In a purchase situation this may involve demonstrating to a lender that the scenario you have based your budgets on also meets regional council rules. All resource consents that are linked to a parcel of land should also be viewed. In the future many farms may have consents for irrigation, effluent disposal and those that stipulate how the land is used (land use consents) when you look to purchase them. These consents may be linked to a particular Farm Environment Plan as well. All should be checked. The value of a piece of land in Canterbury, for example, must now also consider any nutrient or land use constraints that may be associated because these can impact its future use. I urge you to use qualified people as early as possible to investigate these aspects for you. There are all sorts of details that the emerging rules require you to consider.

Farm Environment Plans and Overseer nutrient budgets are not as scary as they sound, but if you don’t take time to understand the implications for your business you are farming blind. It’s kind of like checking the weather forecast when you make your plans for the week. You really don’t want to get caught out with a storm especially when it was in the forecast.

People who choose a life involved with agriculture tend to share a common desire; to leave our farms in a better state. Every day we utilise our natural resources, growing food and fibre to (in a good year) return a profit for ourselves and our community. Taking care of those natural resources and being great stewards of the land and water are as vital to our long term success as husbandry of crops and stock or management people. We need skills in all facets.

Due to the nation’s desire to protect New Zealand’s water quality and quantity, farmers are now required to focus on the environmental impacts of our farming practices in particular. Happily, most farmers I meet share similar sustainability objectives; after all, we have enjoyed the benefits of promoting New Zealand and our products internationally as “clean and green” or “100% pure”, so how do we like being asked to provide a bit of evidence to demonstrate to others that we are responsible resource managers – is it all a burden too great or an opportunity we could launch from in the future?

As an eternal optimist I can see opportunities along with the challenges. I urge you to plan for these changes. It can all sound scary when you are already under time or financial pressure, however it needn’t be. Once you have a plan it always feels better.

By Charlotte Glass – AgriMagic

Featured in: ATS / Ruralco – Real Farmer
October/November 2015

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